It’s one of those words used so often by politicians that it’s almost lost all meaning. It’s right up there with world-class, state-of-the-art, public-private partnership, new paradigm, and summit. For once, reform is precisely the right word to describe the new development code now being written for Memphis and Shelby County.

That’s because the new Unified Development Code is about more than good land use. More to the point, it is about good government.

That’s precisely why the next six months will see hard-fought resistance from the entrenched special interests who have all but owned the local zoning apparatus for more than a decade. They control the process to the point that one boasted that on any given day, he could deliver seven votes (a majority) in either local legislative body, another has co-signed car loans and given rides on his private jet to elected officials, and both have been involved in real estate dealings with the same politicians who vote on their zoning cases.

The Catch

Therein lies the Catch-22. This new way making land use decisions requires the approval of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Sometime in the middle of next year, these 26 legislators will be asked to pass the new Unified Development Code ( being written by nationally respected planners Lee Einswiler and Colin Scaff of Austin for the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. The new Code would reform what is most wrong with the present system, replacing the current politicized process with one where politicians set policy and professional planners decide on zoning requests.

The subverting of the present system stems largely from the misuse of PUD’s (Planned Use Development) and the takeover of the Land Use Control Board by developers. Designed to replace existing zoning districts with innovative development, PUD’s were intended to be rare and allowed because of important public benefits, such as increasing open space or protecting the environment.

Instead, in Memphis and Shelby County, unlike the rest of the nation, PUD’s are the rule, not the exception, and normally, the underlying zoning isn’t even changed, so there is land with agricultural zoning that is covered with cookie cutter development.

Subverting The System

To make matters worse, local PUD applications are treated as special exemptions, because that section of the law has weaker requirements for notifying the public and neighborhood groups. Their clout was weakened even more in the mid-1990’s when the Mayors Herenton and Rout – ignoring pleas by neighborhoods for more representation – oaded up the public board that votes first on zoning applications, the Land Use Control Board, with employees, friends and even relatives of developers, to the point where today, of the 12 board members and alternates, only one reprseents neighborhoods.

With this dominance by developers, within a year, the percentage of times the board overturned its own professional staff’s recommendations about PUDs climbed to 70 percent.

Creations of Memphis and Shelby County’s fatally flawed zoning process is all around us. The sewer extension to the Gray’s Creek basin was driven by politics and built without a plan in place. The plan for Germantown Parkway was never adopted as official government policy and amendments began before the ink was dry, giving birth to seemingly endless succession of derivative strip malls and traffic-clogged streets. Future Hickory Hills cover the landscape of the unincorporated areas of Shelby County, where they are testament to politically-based zoning that allows a quality of housing so poor that it requires reinvestment before mortgages are paid.

Meanwhile, construction of Highway 385 on the eastern fringe of Shelby County nears completion, and incredibly, once again, there is no plan for schools, commercial development or neighborhoods.

The Difference

So, what difference could the new Unified Development Code make?

* It would correct the questionable governance issues in the system now.

* It would throw out cookie cutter rules that tend to urbanize the suburbs and suburbanize the city.

* It would give incentives for mixed income, mixed age and mixed use neighborhoods so people can age in place.

* It would remove disincentives for investing in the urban core.

* It would create more open space and preserves trees. It would give incentives for higher densities that support retail, churches, and services.

* It would encourage development that is less auto-oriented and more walkable.

A Reform Vote

In other words, it is a revolutionary idea for Memphis and Shelby County, ending an era of “slash and burn” profiteering and swinging the pendulum strongly toward smart growth and good government.

It may be hard for some City Council and Board of Commissioners to reform local system and wean themselves from the steady stream of campaign contributions that flows from the development industry, but it’s a vote for reform that every neighborhood group will be watching.